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Those who've traveled to this tiny (pop. barely three million), ancient country in the mountainous Caucasus region east of Turkey wonder why Armenia isn't on many travelers' bucket lists. Not a lot of nations can boast such an ancient and rich cultural heritage dating far back as the ancient times - a 6,000-year-old winemaking tradition, for example or a capital, Yerevan, 28 years older than the "Eternal City," Rome.
This small country will draw you in with its capturing landscapes, ancient monuments, delicious food, and unparalleled hospitality. From enjoying the world’s longest cable car ride through the mesmerising landscapes of Vorotan canyon (top) to marveling at some of the oldest monasteries on record, these are just some of the reasons you should travel to Armenia.
Armenia's history has been eventful indeed, seeing countless invasions thanks to its strategic position, such as during the Ottoman-Persian Wars in the 16th century. Over the course of history, numerous major conflicts have afflicted the country - to name just three, battling against the Roman Empire (62 CE), invaded by its successor the Byzantine empire (1145), and losing west Armenia while the country was being Sovietized (1920). It has also been the site of many great legends, like the stranding of Noah's Ark on the country's holy mountain, Mount Ararat, the holy mountain of Armenia, or its conversion to Christianity (the first territory in the world to do adopt it as the state religion).
Troubles still do persist, such as poor relations with neighbouring Turkey stemming from the Ottoman Turks' genocide of some 1.5 Armenians within its Empire in 1915-17 (still unacknowledged by that country's current rulers) and an unresolved conflict with another neighbour, Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory operating as a de facto state that is an unrecognized ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.
So over the centuries much has happened in Armenia, which is why it is so interesting in a cultural sense. Not only for culture buffs though, as the small country packs a great variety in magnificent landscapes that will surely satisfy nature lovers.
If you’re thinking about travelling to Armenia, here are the general things you need to know before you go.
Outside of the capital you should assume that nobody speaks English. The language that is spoken is Armenian, with its own alphabet. You can get by fairly well with Russian though as it is the most common foreign language in the country and many Armenians understand it. Road signs are usually in English and in Armenian. Try to learn a few words like hello (barev) and thank you (mersi), which is much appreciated by the locals. Most accommodation and tour providers speak just enough English to be able to sort things out (if not, try some self-invented sign language which usually works. Or not).
Armenians are very friendly and will try their hardest to help you out, even when they don’t speak a word of English. It’s not uncommon to attract a group of about 10 Armenians when asking for directions, everyone weighing in with one or two words in English and their take on the directions you should have.
Armenia has an interesting, varied and delicious cuisine, with some dishes being well known even beyond Armenia like shashlick and dolma. A lot of the dishes are meat based, and they throw everything on grills and barbecue, including vegetables. Soon you’ll notice that the delicious barbecue smell is present basically everywhere you go. You will eat a lot of lavish, thin flatbread that is made in a traditional ‘tonir’ oven and is complimentary with almost every dish but doesn’t bore easily. Common ingredients in Armenian dishes are lamb, eggplant, yoghurt, cottage cheese, grape leaves and many fragrant spices. There are too many dishes to list and specify if they are delicious or not. I recommended to just try out a lot of different dishes and ask the person who is selling the food what they like. Armenians appreciate visitors taking an interest in their culture, including food, and asking questions about it usually gets you an excited Armenian and something tasty to eat. In that way you get to try some new things and there aren’t any exceptionally weird dishes anyway so it is rather safe to do.
Most of the local beer is nothing special, except in Yerevan where there is a very new craft brewery called Dargett. They make absolutely delicious craft beer and the place is packed with young locals on the weekend.
But in terms of drinks the real speciality lies in wine and cognac. Armenian cognac is world famous, thus the Yerevan Brandy Company is proudly presented as a major attraction of the city with tasting tours and a museum (Ararat Museum). Armenia and Georgia are one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world, with grape cultivation going back to ancient times. Well recognised within the wine world and producing some of the best quality wines there are, make sure to try out a few. There are a lot of vineyards and factories throughout the country, the most famous one that is open to visitors is the Areni factory. I wouldn’t say it is really worth a visit unless you are passing by anyways, you can take a tour and taste some wines here.
Tap water is generally safe to drink, but as you’re in a different country there can always be different bacteria than that you are used to that upset your stomach. In mountain areas (like Tatev) there are often many tap fountains in streets etc. providing delicious water from the mountains.
The currency is the Armenian Dram. It is very well possible to have a low budget holiday, whilst it is also tempting to splurge on food and stuff because it is all quite cheap. For accommodation, we paid on average 15 dollars per person a day which gets you rather nice accommodation. Food is inexpensive, as well; in restaurants we paid around 6-8 dollar for a meal plus drinks. Gas is around .86 USD per litre.
Travelling in Armenia is completely safe. Never once did we feel unsafe anywhere. The only area prone to unrest is the Nagorno Karabakh border due to the before mentioned conflict. The border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is closed and it is best to avoid the border area all together. Other than that the border with Turkey is also closed (due to conflicts between the two countries) so you can’t cross it anyway. Use your common sense and general precautions for petty crime etc. like you would anywhere.
Buses and shared taxis (marshrutkas) get you to most of the major places for cheap but I always prefer to have my own car. The landscape is just really nice to drive through with enough interesting stops along the way that you’ll want to decide yourselves when you get out. We rented our car with Sixt and picked it up in Yerevan and dropped off in Tblisi, Georgia (other way around is not possible due to regulations). If you rent with international companies like Sixt, Hertz e.g. the cheapest car would be around 40 dollar a day. Often you can get cheaper deals with local companies. Make sure you get the full insurance as the roads can be in quite a bad shape. Unless you really want to go far up in the mountains there isn’t necessarily the need for a 4WD in Armenia as you can get to most places, albeit a bit bumpy sometimes.
The capital is a great place to start you trip and spend a day or two. Contradictory to what you might expect from a Soviet era city, it is quite metropolitan. Yerevan has lively nightlife, with clubs, hip restaurants and European style bars. Mixed with the many remains of older days, like the typical pink Soviet buildings and monuments or the 17th-century neighborhood Kond, You won’t find any grand landmarks here, rather it is just a nice place to absorb the atmosphere and familiarize yourself a bit with the country you are in.
Yerevan is incredibly old, 2800 years to be exact, which is 28 years older than Rome. Thus it is drenched in interesting history. A good way to learn more about this is to take a free walking tour or visit one or more of the local museums - Armenian Genocide Museum is particularly worth the visit if you want to learn and understand a bit more about Armenians, their history and relations with neighboring countries like Turkey. There are a few other museums, like the History Museum of Armenia and the National Gallery that are interesting as well.
A prominent feature of the city centre are the cascade stairs. It is a large stairwell that leads to the grim Soviet monument (not one for extravagant decorating, those Soviets) erected to celebrate 50 years of Armenia in the USSR. It provides great views over the city and to the massive statue mother of Armenia, supposedly placed defiantly in the direction of Turkey. Underneath the stairwell is a contemporary art museum which you can enter for free and that you’ll pass through if you decide to take the escalator instead of the stairs to the monument.
You can also wander around in the 17th-century neighborhood Kond, which really feels like a separate part of the city where incredibly old and derelict houses sit on the narrow streets and alleys.
Lover’s Park is a small park that is excellent for a bit of relaxing and watching the locals going about their day, grabbing coffee or playing chess and other board games, a favourite pastime activity of many.
There are enough hostels and guesthouses in the city. The is a highly recommended hostel and is small but good, the staff is helpful and the location is perfect. Homestays are quite popular as well if you’d choose for a more local experience.
In the evening the city comes a bit more alive around the square, where there are many (trendy) bars and restaurants and well-dressed locals making their way for an evening of dining and drinking, a seemingly favourite activity of Armenians.
There are plenty of Western style bars, like an Irish, Beatles and 90’s bars. Most of the bars have a very unobtrusive entrance and are in the basement of the residency buildings. Around the big square there a few more, but rather tacky looking, bars. Bar goers were very friendly and interested in our country like we were in theirs. The level of English is notably better with young people in the capital. As mentioned above, if you like craft beer, head over to Dargett to taste some great homemade craft beer and have a meal. It is quite western but rather popular with young locals.
Located some 4 1/2 to five hours southeast of Yerevan, the tiny village of Tatev has become known mostly for the longest cable car in the world, the Wings of Tatev, lead to the atmospheric 9th-century Tatev monastery. Most people arrive in Tatev, take the cable car out to the monastery, and leave.
However, there is plenty to see and the drive alone through the Vorotan Canyon is worth it - an incredible varied landscape starting with arid, desert like surroundings when you leave the capital. It’s not too long before some thin pasture appears and many fruit and vegetable stalls alongside the road. After a while the road climbs up into the mountains, two hours or so later you’ll cross a mountain pass and suddenly the landscape has changed to green hills and endless fields with blooming wildflowers, while the air is substantially colder due to the elevation. The vendors change as well - now there are people selling honey on the side of the road.
The road eventually leads to a junction where the main road continues to Goris (another destination worth checking out) and the secondary road to Tatev. This road goes through a few old and derelict villages. Some of them look like a war has struck with streets full of rumble and scrap metal. Rusty old decaying cars, trucks and tractors are parked everywhere. A man is sweeping up big pick piles of rocks, with a broom (probably still working on that, I assume). The side streets are unpaved, rocky and full of holes. People stared at us; I don’t think they have seen many western tourists passing through here (granted, our shiny red Nissan Micra didn’t do a good job in hiding the fact that we were tourists either, as old Lada’s really are the only cars locals drive).
After passing through those villages, a zigzag road takes you along the edge of the canyon, providing magnificent views from several nice viewpoints, like the medieval bell chapel. The road winds all the way down to the canyon to cross the river, only to go right back up the mountains again on a gravel road to reach the village of Tatev. It is a very small village and pretty quiet, with most visitors concentrating in the area around the cable car and the monastery.
There are a number of short and longer hikes in the area. We hiked to Mount Petroskhach, which takes you through the old part of the village up into the hills, providing magnificent views across a large part of the steep canyon, which seems to have an almost straight drop from the plateau. The trail is sometimes a bit difficult to follow as there are a number of trails leaving from the area. We asked a few locals for directions, ignored their advice anyway and went the wrong way (obviously). Down in the canyon where you crossed the river by car, there is a small parking spot. From here you can follow the footpath alongside the river which takes you through bushy, shrubs and across the river. In summer, the area around the river is teeming with life, lots of butterflies, dragonflies, other insects, fish, birds and many flowers. Be aware that there are snakes as well, take caution when walking into thick grass. The path leads to the Tatevi Anapat monastery, a complex dating from the 17th century, which was abandoned by the monks due to an earthquake in 1658 resulting in the ruins that you see here today. It has this amazing Indiana Jones feeling to it, as an ancient complex slowly taken back by nature, barely visible from the road. Upon entering the main building, which is still quite intact, a soft voice filled the room. Near the altar there was a monk praying, dressed in his long black robe. Apparently he is still living here all by himself.
The path continues along the river, we didn’t take it due to lack of time but it looks very promising. Following your way back to the parking lot there are a number of viewing platforms over the river. They call this area Devil’s Bridge (Satani Kamurj) because the formation of it seemed improbable, therefore it must be the Devil’s work. From the viewing platforms you can’t really see that much of it, however you can get down in the river and explore the incredible caves alongside it. Down in the river it really looks like a scene straight out of a fairy tale. Moss and plants gracefully decorate the walls, while stalactites in all kind of shapes and colours hang from the cave ceilings and form weird terraces around pools, the water containing (supposedly) healing minerals. It gives the impression that you’re walking in a movie set or a theme park attraction. From down in the river you can also see the Devil’s Bridge much better. To get down there you follow the footpath from the viewing platforms all the way to the end, where there is a small hanging rope to get you down onto a wobbly ladder and finally in the river. This rope is a bit hidden between the bushes. Be aware that it is all a little bit treacherous and one could easily fall and slip and you also have to wade through the river. At some points the river flows quite fast, we decided to plunge in and let the river takes us somewhere, which landed us at another amazing spot. Getting back upstream proved a bit more difficult, but also guarantees some hilarious videos of your travelmates struggling to return while the river keeps pushing you back. It is not a very big or deep river so nothing too dangerous. It is absolutely worth it to get down in the river, this really made us feel like true explorers.
Back in Tatev, the monastery is well worth a visit of course. If you continue down the road for a bit there is a nice viewpoint that looks out over the monastery and canyon. The monastery is perched beautifully on a rock overlooking the whole canyon. We stayed for two days, but it is an area that begs to be further explored. The beautiful canyon has walking paths following the river that you just want to follow and see where it ends up or take one of the small unpaved roads and just see where it goes. At this point we turned back in the direction of Yerevan, if you continue the road it will take you to even higher mountains and eventually to the border crossing with Iran. There are a number of inns/guesthouses, and that's mostly where you'll end up eating, as well (some, such as Saro's Bed and Breakfast, also provide meals for non-guests).
A small town close to Yerevan, its major attractions are the 1st-century Garni Temple (the only Graeco-Roman temple in the former Soviet Union), UNESCO World Heritage Geghard Monastery (founded in the 4th century), and the beautiful Garni Gorge and adjacent Khosov Nature Reserve. You can enter the Garni Gorge from both side of town by car or on foot. Inside the gorge you’ll find this incredible miracle of nature called the Symphony of Stones, a rather fitting name for stone walls that are carved out in perfect cubelike pillars. You can drive the dirt road all the way to the other entrance, but after a while we were afraid our Nissan Micra couldn’t take it anymore with all the massive bumps and holes in the road.
There are many hiking trails in the Khosov nature reserve. If you come from Garni the entrance is quite unclear. I drove to the entrance on Google maps, a dirt road climbing up the hill. Eventually a guarded gate signed the entrance and that you could not go further with car, however there was no real parking place either. Thus from Garni it is best to walk to the entrance or enter from the other side.
The Geghard monastery is amazing but fairly touristy; get there early to avoid crowds and marvel at this ancient, dark hued complex, beautifully perched on top of the ridge overlooking the gorge, It's also great to visit at the end of the day for nice lighting. The nearby restaurant is excellent, and also has one of the best terraces I have ever seen, overlooking the gorge and the temple.
We had rented a whole house for ourselves for around 50 USD, and there are a number of such options available online. and It is quite nice to stay in a residents house back in a neighbourhood to get a more local feeling.
Moving up north, Dilijan presents a completely different landscape again. Also commonly referred to as the Switzerland of Armenia, this is a small town in between lush green forests and hills. There is not much to do other than hike the beautiful surroundings and visit some monasteries like Haghartsin, which can keep you busy for a few days though.
A bit farther along, there is also a zipline, but we stuck with the hiking. We hiked near the Haghartsin monastery, which can be reached by a road with twists and turns that begs to be driven with an old school convertible and a hot girl next to you, unfortunately we had to do it with a Nissan Micra and two dudes. The forests are just like how I expect a real forest to be: lush, plenty of variation in the vegetation and full of blooming flowers. It is a forest where you just expect to see a bear, or some creature from a fairytale pop up from behind a tree any minute.
There are several hotel, hostel, guesthouse, and rental options here, as well.
Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in 301 CE. The story goes that after a Christian (Gregory the Illuminator) cured the Armenian king of a grave illness, he agreed to convert to Christianity. Around 95 percent of the population nowadays is Christian, while Armenia is surrounded by Muslim countries except for Georgia. As the country had such a major role in establishing Christianity, you will encounter a lot of monasteries and other religious sites. All these incredibly old buildings and associated tales and myths instill a mysterious and ancient atmosphere to many of the sites that we visited. You’ll notice one common denominator among the monasteries and that is they sure knew how to pick spectacular locations to build them, usually perched on some cliff surrounded by a dramatic landscape. A few noteworthy monasteries that I visited are listed below (none charge entry fees):
This 13th-century monastery is located on the way from Yerevan to Tatev, close to Areni, which is a nice little detour. It is beautifully situated in a landscape that most closely resembles the Grand Canyon; hot, dry, and with red dirt mountains. The complex has a few different churches and chapels and it was the residency of Syunik’s bishops in the 13th century. It is popular with with domestic and Georgian tourists.
Dating back to the 9th century it's located on the edge of a plateau overlooking the gorge set in a spectacular landscape. You can go inside the complex, but if you follow the road for a little bit there is a great viewpoint of the monastery. If you venture a bit through the bushes you can see a waterfall coming down as well. The monastery played an important role as an spiritual centre and medieval university in Armenia.
Founded in the 4th century in Garni, this dark coloured monastery complex is surrounded by cliffs and located next to a gorge. The interior - especially the cave chambers - does feel incredible old, and with a mysterious vibe. The vendors and tour buses detract from the atmosphere a bit, but tstill definitely worthwhile.
We weren't able to visit one of Armenia's most famous monasteries, as there were thick clouds that day and it is famous for having the snow-capped peak of Ararat in the background. We were also out of time and guessed it would be another busy monastery as well, as this is one of the most popular landmarks in Armenia. A few kilometres from Yerevan, the earliest chapel dates back to 642, with construction continuing into the 17th century. Gregory the Illuminator was 13 years imprisoned here by the king before he cured him of an illness after which the king and country converted to Christianity.
Dating back to the 13th century in the lush green forests around Dilijan, it's small and not completely intact anymore but worth a visit. It is quite nice and the main building (church) is still intact. Also the starting point from a number of trails in the forests so perfect for combining those activities.
There are many more monasteries, churches and other religious site of interest. Many can be done in a day tour from Yerevan (hostels organise these).
These places will take you around the country, which we did in eight days. It is not very big but there is plenty to see, I’d recommend to take at least 8 days to explore Armenia. It is still a rather underrated destination, apparent by the low number of tourists that visit the country. It should however receive much more attention, as I have never been to a country before that made me feel like a true explorer without the discomfort of one.
The history is endlessly interesting and the landscapes fascinating. I’d say the country is the perfect introduction to one of the most interesting corners of the world, standing at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.